UPDATED: The 10 Best New Houston Restaurants of 2012
Uchi is just one of the transformative restaurants that have opened along Lower Westheimer in the past year, alongside places such as L'Olivier, El Real Tex-Mex Cafe and The Hay Merchant. It makes sense, then, that Uchi should completely alter the expectations that people have for a "neighborhood restaurant." But that's exactly what Uchi aims to be. It's high-end and accessible all at once, a neighborhood restaurant that raises the bar for food and service at every other restaurant, neighborhood or otherwise.
At first glance, a place that only offers one service a day -- dinner, which the full kitchen staff starts preparing at 7 a.m. every day -- and often requires reservations for that meal would seem inaccessible. A place that offers dishes with names like "walu walu" or ingredients such as rosemary smoke, espresso fish caramel or sanbaizu doesn't immediately ring true as an after-work stop-off or a place to grab a quick bite to eat.
So you may be surprised to find how inexpensive Uchi actually is. It's still a significant meal -- especially for those who, as Director of Culinary Operations Phillip Speer puts it, want to "blow it up, try everything and get the whole experience" -- but it's also the kind of place where you'll find that you would feel comfortable stopping in for a $3 sake and $6 spicy tuna roll during its daily happy hour from 5 to 6:30 p.m. You can absolutely do so, too; dropping by and finding a table is easier than you'd expect -- just as it should be at your friendly, neighborhood Japanese farmhouse cuisine restaurant.
Underbelly: The Juggernaut
Photo by Troy Fields
Underbelly was destined to be unstoppable from the very beginning: After leaving Catalan, the dining public couldn't wait for chef Chris Shepherd to open a restaurant of his very own. The wait all but killed Time, which named Underbelly to its list of places to eat before the Armageddon hits...before the restaurant was even open. And less than 12 months later, Underbelly is the hottest ticket in town -- despite playing to mixed reviews from diners.
At the top of Underbelly's simple, one-page menu is a bold statement: "Houston is the new American Creole city of the South," one that residents of New Orleans -- long the country's main Creole metropolis -- would certainly challenge to the death. But bold has long been the modus operandi of Shepherd, whose restaurant more than lives up to this claim in its diverse menu that's short and sweet yet wide-ranging in its array of cuisines: From Korean-style braised goat and pleasantly chewy dumplings in a fiery red gojuchang chili sauce to a German schnitzel with its always-present partner, red cabbage, the constantly-changing dishes on Underbelly's menu aim to tell the "story of Houston food" one influence and ingredient at a time.
"This is the most laid-back 'upscale' restaurant in Houston," remarked a friend one day over a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed full of Redneck Cheddar, chilled tomato gazpacho with cool wisps of crunchy cucumber and charred Gulf shrimp over creamy grits saturated with homemade pimento cheese. He's right. And perhaps -- although he is correct -- it's wrong to call Underbelly "upscale." The prices certainly don't reflect the word. But maybe that's for the best -- Houston isn't an upscale city. It's down-home, it's relaxed and it takes all comers with wide-open arms, just like Underbelly does.
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